In The Wild Vine, James Beard Award-winning writer Todd Kliman tracks a seemingly inconspicuous grape as it travels from the imagination of Virginia physician/horticulturalist Daniel Norborne Norton (1794-1842) down the decades to vineyards north and south as far west as Texas. Dr. Norton's appealing hybrid became not only the official grape of the state of Missouri; it garnered an international wine award in Vienna before being forced underground by Prohibition. Kliman's enthralling narrative shows that the rescue of this American original was accomplished by the efforts of a delightfully motley group of characters, including bootleggers, a former Air Force fighter pilot, and a transsexual vintner. Editor's recommendation.
The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wineby Todd Kliman
Author Todd Kliman sets out on an epic quest to unravel the mystery behind Norton, a grape used to make a Missouri wine that claimed/i>
A rich romp through untold American history featuring fabulous characters, The Wild Vine is the tale of a little-known American grape that rocked the fine-wine world of the nineteenth century and is poised to do so again today.
Author Todd Kliman sets out on an epic quest to unravel the mystery behind Norton, a grape used to make a Missouri wine that claimed a prestigious gold medal at an international exhibition in Vienna in 1873. At a time when the vineyards of France were being ravaged by phylloxera, this grape seemed to promise a bright future for a truly American brand of wine-making, earthy and wild. And then Norton all but vanished. What happened?
The narrative begins more than a hundred years before California wines were thought to have put America on the map as a wine-making nation and weaves together the lives of a fascinating cast of renegades. We encounter the suicidal Dr. Daniel Norton, tinkering in his experimental garden in 1820s Richmond, Virginia. Half on purpose and half by chance, he creates a hybrid grape that can withstand the harsh New World climate and produce good, drinkable wine, thus succeeding where so many others had failed so fantastically before, from the Jamestown colonists to Thomas Jefferson himself. Thanks to an influential Long Island, New York, seed catalog, the grape moves west, where it is picked up in Missouri by German immigrants who craft the historic 1873 bottling. Prohibition sees these vineyards burned to the ground by government order, but bootleggers keep the grape alive in hidden backwoods plots. Generations later, retired Air Force pilot Dennis Horton, who grew up playing in the abandoned wine caves of the very winery that produced the 1873 Norton, brings cuttings of the grape back home to Virginia. Here, dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner Jenni McCloud, on an improbable journey of her own, becomes Norton’s ultimate champion, deciding, against all odds, to stake her entire reputation on the outsider grape.
Brilliant and provocative, The Wild Vine shares with readers a great American secret, resuscitating the Norton grape and its elusive, inky drink and forever changing the way we look at wine, America, and long-cherished notions of identity and reinvention.
From the Hardcover edition.
The Washington Post
"Who knew a grape could generate so much history, so much commerce, so much entrancing narrative, so much splendid writing. Todd Kliman's The Wild Vine is as brilliantly successful a hybrid as its subject: combining the best characteristics of history and memoir, biography and travelogue, it is an utter delight."
--Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"Todd Kliman's The Wild Vine is beautiful and eye-opening and you'll enjoy it as you would a bracing and wonderful wine. It's a mystery story, a history lesson, a personal journey between hard covers: a great, American vintage."
--Darin Strauss, author of Chang & Eng and More Than It Hurts You
"This book will move you in ways that might surprise you, for The Wild Vine is about much more than an obscure American grape; it's about heartbreak, determination, courage, and humanity. If in vino veritas, this may be the truest story ever told, and Todd Kliman tells it with grace and sensitivity."
--Don and Petie Kladstrup, authors of Wine and War
"A fascinating, well-written and researched cross-generational journey that follows the DNA of a single grape variety that I had never heard of before. I don't know if the Norton grape will make it as one of the great wines of the world, but its history, and the eccentric characters who carried its hope for a wine that could be grown and vinified in Virginia, of all places, makes for page-turning reading."
--Rex Pickett, author of Sideways
"Kliman tells the ups and downs of Norton with equal panache, pointing a bright light on grape hybrids, an important yet little-known part of the wine world, and introducing a cast of interesting characters along the way. While reading this book, I kept wishing that I had a bottle of Norton at my elbow."
--George M. Taber, author of Judgment of Paris
"A well-researched and fascinating story that reads like a novel. A true and highly entertaining American tale."
--Anthony Dias Blue, The Tasting Panel magazine, WCBS, KABC
"This is a terrific book. If it were a wine, it would be expressive but earthy, subtly spiced, with great structure and a long, lingering finish."
--Toby Young, of Top Chef
"Hold on for an entertaining and enlightening 400-year, transcontinental, trans-cultural investigation of the greatest wine you’ve never heard of. Todd Kliman squeezes a hell of a yarn from a grape."
--Daniel Evan Weiss, author of The Roaches Have No King and The Swine's Wedding
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
The Wild VineA Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine
By Todd Kliman
Clarkson PotterCopyright © 2010 Todd Kliman
All right reserved.
Clouds of dust drift through the open windows of my rickety Toyota as it shudders along the bumpy gravel path of Champe Ford Road like a washing machine on spin cycle, stirring up sticks and pebbles.
The vineyard sits up ahead, just beyond a grove of ash and walnut trees so densely crosshatched that the road through it resembles a tunnel. It’s a sunny, sweltering late spring day in Virginia’s hunt country, but having entered the tunnel, it’s as if I’ve entered a different realm altogether. Light and sound disappear. The heat, meanwhile, has not been dispelled by the intersecting bands of shade but becomes more concentrated, and the air has the odd, uncirculating stillness of a locked vault, of something trapped, a gathering of ghosts.
I emerge onto a steep and narrow road to find a woman standing outside the tasting room with her hand over her brow, squinting into the slanting afternoon sun like a land surveyor. I’m late. Even before I cut the engine, she bounds out to meet me in her pale yellow blouse and white skirt.
“Hiya,” she says, giving me her hand. “Jenni McCloud.” She doesn’t squeeze but instead, at the moment her fingers come into contact with my palm, allows them to go limp—a delicate gesture meant, I suppose, to reduce the effect of their size.
I apologize for keeping her waiting. She waves me off. “No worries,” she says, as though worrying itself were the greater offense. “Come on, let me show you the property.”
A pair of sweet, rambunctious dogs runs out from the wings to escort us to her all-terrain vehicle.
“Say hello to Treixadura and Fer. Hello, cuties!”
“Treixadura and Fer Servadou,” she explains, unhelpfully.
I stare blankly.
“The grapes? Spanish? No?” she offers.
“Sorry. Never heard of ’em.”
A couple of arthritic-walking chickens join the party. “Hey, little goobers,” Jenni says, stroking their lustrous coats.
“You’ve got quite the menagerie, don’t you?”
“And a parrot inside and I’m getting pigs next. Little piggies. I love it. All this land, and all these animals. I’m a country girl. I love being able to be free on the land like this, and breathe. That’s why I moved here.”
We hop in and drive. To the east, Bull Run Mountain, soft and shimmering in the heat haze, conjures a slumbering giant, lolling on the horizon as if it were a hammock. Catoctin Mountain lies opposite at a distance. Embosomed between them, the tiny village of Aldie nestles. Other than the planes that knife across the sky, unwelcome reminders of nearby Dulles Airport and the congested exurbs of northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., feels like a time zone away. As humid and thick as the air is, I can feel myself beginning to unclench and breathe, too.
“What is that, air?” I say, inhaling.
Jenni throws her head back in laughter. “Welcome to horse country, man.”
It’s sometimes the simplest of things, the silliest of things, that draw you to people, not their well-intentioned gestures or deepest thoughts. And so it is that I take an immediate liking to Jenni for following “horse country” with “man,” for subverting the gentility of the one with the vernacular of the other. There’s a subtle point here, too: Chrysalis might be in equestrian country, but it is not of it.
Had I not turned sharply off John Mosby Highway, I would have continued to historic downtown Middleburg, skirting low-riding stone fences as I rose and dipped and wound my way through the arcadian countryside. Middleburg and Aldie are five minutes apart. They might as well be five hours. It is Middleburg that the rich and powerful flock to, Middleburg that is synonymous with the good life, Middleburg that is widely regarded as the village with a claim to history, all those battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars scattered about the lush and rolling valley. Aldie is a small town; Middleburg plays at being a small town. It gestures toward simplicity and taking it slow, but revels in its members-only aura—a private club, lacking only bouncers to enforce its codes. The smell of old money, palpable as the smell of fresh-mown grass in summer, draws new money. And the presence of both, in turn, are an irresistible turn-on for those with no money. On nice weekends, particularly in the spring and fall, droves of Washingtonians set out for Middleburg to stroll its boutiques and buy its overpriced jams and sleep late in its inns and fantasize, if only for a couple of days, that some of Middleburg’s charm and gentility has rubbed off on them.
Aldie is the opposite of a tourist haven. It is Middleburg’s unlovely, unlettered sister. The town was established in 1765 and for a time was the fourth largest in Loudoun County. By the late 19th century, however, Middleburg was incorporated and Aldie descended into obscurity, only a Civil War battle punctuating its many meager decades of nonhistory. On principle alone, I would much rather find myself with a few hours to spend in Aldie than in Middleburg, preferring the hungry, unwashed outsider over the preening insider.
The SUV rumbles over the hilly, uneven earth toward the vineyards, a yapping field dog running alongside. Jenni comes to a sudden, playful stop, and the dog nearly leaps into her lap. “Hey there,” she coos, stroking its fur. Then, like a mother grown impatient, she dispatches it: “Now, get out there and chase those deer!”
She cuts the motor and we jump out. For a second I stand staring at the vineyards, with their perfect, parallel rows of grapes, the leafy vines straining upward toward the blazing sun like worshippers seeking a god.
“You don’t get to see this much in the city, huh?”
Jenni takes a moment to drink it all in, then guides me through the rows of vines with the unwavering focus of a general in the field. The ruddy skin, the long, clambering strides, the flinty impatience—it’s as if one of those iconic pioneer women, tough-minded and independent, capable of handling anything or anyone, has stepped out of the pages of a Willa Cather novel.
“Look at you little characters,” she says, as we come upon a grape called the Norton, the prize of her vineyard and the reason I’ve made the trip out from the city. The grapes, still months from being plucked, are beginning to cluster on the vines.
“Come on, grow, Nortonians, grow!”
She runs her fingers through the tiny blue-black orbs, like a jeweler showing off the quality of the pearls. “That’s history, right there. The native grape of America. Good old Norton. Born right here in Virginia, in Richmond.”
Next to the names of the great European wines—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay—the name Norton sounds jarring by comparison, and Jenni accentuates the effect by biting down on each syllable. The effect is to provide a kind of history lesson: elegant, sophisticated Europe; hard, pioneering America.
“I love it how in California they all think they’re making American wine with the Zinfandel. Zinfandel! Zinfandel’s from Hungary, for crying out loud. The Norton is American, it’s one hundred percent American, it’s ours. And the fact that it makes a phenomenal wine is just icing on the cake. Come on, let’s go and taste some.”
Inside the tasting room, the increasing depth and sophistication of Jenni’s wine talk (malolactic fermentation, micro-oxygenation) leaves me feeling dazed and alienated, and after pouring a couple of her white wines for me to try, she leans across the counter and says, conspiratorally, “You wanna know something? For the longest time, wine gave me the willies. I didn’t like it. I was drinking Boone’s Farm and Strawberry Hill and wondering what all the fuss was, why everyone kept talking about wine. Honest to God’s truth.” She gives an odd little laugh, a sound that starts low, in the diaphragm, but finishes high and thin and reedy.
Few businesses are more paternalistic, more rooted in tradition, in habit, than winemaking, a livelihood that is typically handed down through the generations, and most often from father to son. Women are scarce; outsiders, even scarcer. New ideas are generally anathema. And here was Jenni, who—before purchasing the seventy-plus acres of her estate (she says, pouring a lighter-bodied red) and coming north to Jefferson country from Florida after selling her diagnostic software business at the height of the tech boom—had never owned a vineyard and never made wine. Nor was she related to anyone who did. Indeed, the very idea of winemaking as a calling, a way of life, was not something that could be said to have been in her blood.
She gives an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders, as if to suggest a combination of dumb luck and happenstance, or maybe divine providence, then tips a bottle of Norton Locksley Reserve into my glass.
I can smell the wine even before I jam my nose into the bowl of the glass. I give the inky liquid a swirl and a taste, and am back again at the dinner that brought me here, a party thrown together in the chaotic aftermath of a hurricane.
Excerpted from The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman Copyright © 2010 by Todd Kliman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Todd Kliman is the food and wine editor and restaurant critic of The Washingtonian. He won a James Beard Award in 2005 for his writing.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Christmas gift for husband. He really enjoyed it. An interesting read.
I lived in VA for 12 years- where Norton wine was started. I now live in KY and they make some good Nortons here- it's a sfascinating wine and I am one who loves it.. The book was great- a very interesting history to this truly American grape.
What more can I say? I thought this was going to be about wine, it's not. It's a rich and engrossing story of identity, of what it means to be an American, and what it means to BE, period. Also, a story of this nation, of the qualities that characterize us. At its heart it is the story of an amazing and colorful woman, a transsexual, and her evolution and determination. It is also the story of an obscure grape that has been around since Jefferson's day. Todd Kliman, the author, introduces us to both and make us care about both, and about the ways they intertwine and connect -- hence, The Wild Vine. All set against American history and cultural history of the past two hundred years. I don't want to give away too much more than this and spoil the reading pleasure. One of the most unusual and fascinating books I've ever come across. I finished it on Friday and have been thinking about it ever since.
Initially, I was not certain where this story was going, but after the first chapter, it kept me intrigued until the end. I am not very knowledgeable about wine, but it kept my interest anyway. It is a good historical overview that is not dry or stilted. The author does a great job weaving pieces of history together to tell the story of the Norton. It makes me want to visit some of the places he mentioned and learn more about the historical figures in the book.
I was fortunate in getting an ARC (advanced reading copy) of this title. Oh what a read on such an intriguing subject - not just wine, but America's wine. I would have liked to have said ~ "Who knew a grape could generate so much history, so much commerce, so much entrancing narrative, so much splendid writing . . . . . . ," but Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Butler said this first about Todd Kliman's The Wild Vine. To thoroughly comprehend and enjoy this wonderful read, one must have a bulbous wine glass and a bottle of Virginia's Cooper Vineyard Norton and a Missouri Montelle Vineyard Cynthiana to follow the presented geographical narration. Let each bottle breathe for forty minutes before consuming in slow sips (the first sip will snap at you for the grape's inherited malic acid, but the learning process of consuming Norton wine will easily follow on the second and third sips). Today you have 179 wineries in 22 Southeastern and mid-western states to find that perfect Norton to match your tastes. With the reading of this delightful book, your exploration of specific grape varieties will start you on a lifetime of wonderful wine memories. How many history books have you considered a non-stop read? I bet not many, but you have a surprise in this title which can transform you so quickly from the present-to-the-past and back again in so many literary ways. This unique query into the background of today's available truly American Norton grape wine will become a road well traveled.
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